Monday, February 4, 2013

Seek Forgiveness--Find God's Mercy

"Behold, I stand at the door and knock.
If anyone hears my voice and opens the door,
I will enter his house and dine with him,
and he with me." (Rev 3:20)
Why is it so hard to seek forgiveness from those who we have hurt?  And why is it sometimes even more difficult to forgive ourselves for the more stupid, more mean-spirited, more hurtful things we've said and done?

It seems to me that pride must be at the root of what prevents us from seeking forgiveness and thus from finding God's mercy.  Pride is the first of the seven deadly sins--the tendency to make self-centeredness the ultimate norm of all our conduct.  Indeed, St. Augustine once defined sin in its root sense as a "curving in on one's self."  Our pride wants to define ourselves and thereby limits us by keeping God out of the center of our lives. 

If you have friends or family members who have seen you at your worst and love you nonetheless, you've had a glimpse of the merciful love of God. If you've ever heard Christ himself speaking in and through his priest in the sacrament of Reconciliation, you've had a direct encounter with divine mercy. We all need to be "straightened out" at times, and the first step to healing and wholeness is to open the door of our heart and ask for forgiveness. Indeed, it's the only way to become an instrument of God's mercy in our painfully proud and misshapen world.

The potential for a free-flow of mercy lies at the heart of the Gospel.  This is what Jesus came into the world to offer.  From his great Prayer of prayers ("forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us") to his great teaching on Happiness ("Blessed are the merciful, for they shall be shown mercy"), Jesus reveals that giving and receiving mercy is the key to moving beyond the cycles of sin and violence and suffering which threaten to trap us. 

Seeking forgiveness is no easy task, of course.  When my father was dying of cancer a couple years ago, he received a note from one of his childhood baseball teammates. They had been local legends of sorts at age 13 for reaching the championship game of the Little League World Series in Williamsport, PA.   Fifty years later, though, my dad's old teammate wrote to apologize for trying to bunt his way on base during their final at bat when they were down by five runs.   Fifty years later, he seemed still haunted by this spur of the moment decision, and we wrote about it at some lenght.   My dad couldn't believe it and was kind of amused by it--but he was mostly touched that this old friend would take the time to write.

A few weeks later, I had a moment alone with my dad and decided that it was my chance to seek forgiveness for some of my own past transgressions. So I said to my dad, "Sorry for all those stupid things I've said and done down through the years." Though he wasn't speaking much at that point, he looked at me, winked, and said: "More bunting in the ninth inning?!..."  It was a great moment of reconciliation--suddenly realizing what I already knew--that I had long ago been forgiven.

This Lent, as Christians around the world prepare to celebrate God's mercy anew in the death and Resurrection of Jesus, the Church invites us to rediscover the sacrament of Reconciliation.  To this end, the U.S. Bishops have issued a brief pastoral exhortation on God's Gift of Mercy, which lays out the beauty of this invitation.  In addition, the Diocese of Joliet has scheduled a Fortnight of Forgiveness, during which the Sacrament of Reconciliation offered will be offered on weeknights during the last two weeks of February in dozens of parishes across the diocese.  These are opportunies to embrace the change of heart to which we are all called.

Before we sin, the Holy Spirit works overtime to give us the grace to do good and avoid evil, while Satan strives to get us to "cave in" on ourselves.  After we sin, however, Satan goes to work to prevent us from seeking forgiveness and finding God's mercy, while the Holy Spirit strives to help us reclaim our lost wholeness and heath.  All we need to do is to crack open the door, and then we'll realize that Christ has been waiting there all along. 

Indeed, when we repent and experience the liberating love of the Lord, we realize that our offenses--like the offenses of all those we encounter--are nothing more than failed bunt attempts.  They have already been washed clean by the blood of the Lamb.